Photo: The Associated Press
In August, with a single community case of coronavirus, New Zealand put the entire country on lockdown. Now, with new daily cases hitting nearly 24,000 on Tuesday, hospital workers have been allowed to assist understaffed COVID-19 wards even if they had mild symptoms.
This shows the radical shift in New Zealand’s approach to the coronavirus. The nation of 5 million moved from eliminating and suppressing the virus to slowly trying to accept that the virus may stay permanently with the omicron variant.
New Zealand has recorded just 65 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Experts have said that the country’s sometimes counterintuitive actions have saved thousands, preemptively avoiding more deadly variants and buying more time for vaccinations.
But with coronavirus-related hospitalizations hitting more than 750 on Tuesday, New Zealand’s system is strained.
Just a month ago, the country could boast cases of only 200 per day, but now, the outbreak affects everyone, from frontline workers to lawmakers.
Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon is the highest-profile politician to contract COVID-19 thus far. He announced his health status on Monday, adding that he felt fine and would continue working from home.
One contributor to the outbreak was returning university students to campuses around the country last month.
Ralph Zambrano, the student president at Victoria University of Wellington, reported that the virus spread quickly in residence halls, taking a toll on the students’ mental health and well-being.
Zambrano said, “The campus would usually be buzzing at this time of year, but it has a very eerie feeling to it. There’s lots of anxiety and tension.” He added that most students were opting to learn remotely.
The food supply system in the residence halls was also affected by the outbreak. Some students were served only a protein drink for breakfast or a piece of cold meat and some peas for dinner.
The university says that case numbers in the halls were reducing as students recovered.
An epidemiologist at the University of Otago, Professor Michael Baker, said that the variant is just as infectious in New Zealand as in other countries.
Baker added that cases seemed to be plateauing or even starting to dip in Auckland, the largest city, while cases continued to rise elsewhere.
He also said that New Zealand was at its worst point yet in the pandemic. However, it was still coming to terms with the virus remaining in the country.
He was concerned that health officials were no longer able to properly track the outbreak. He said this results from New Zealand monitoring a few cases a day to dealing with thousands of self-reported cases from rapid antigen tests.
Dr. Caroline McElnay, director of public health at the Ministry of Health, told reporters that patients with the omicron variant generally had less severe symptoms than patients with delta, even as the hospitalizations grew.
The rising number of patients and infected health workers, she added, allowed the easing of restrictions, which, in turn, allowed health workers to return to hospitals.
She said that infected health workers would only be allowed to attend to patients who already had the virus and if there was no other option.
“It’s an extra tool that enables our health system to keep running,” she said.
Opinions expressed by CEO Weekly contributors are their own.